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NSRC 2020

 
MOL schematic
A recently declassified illustration of the MOL/DORIAN spacecraft.

Blue suits and red ink

Budget overruns and schedule slips of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program


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In the late 1960s, Dr. John McLucas served as undersecretary of the Air Force and wore a dual hat as Director of the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). McLucas had been involved in numerous air and space programs over many years, and he headed the NRO when the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) had run into major funding and schedule problems, resulting in Richard Nixon canceling it in summer 1969. MOL had been a big project officially approved by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. According to his 2006 memoir Reflections of a Technocrat (written with Kenneth J. Alnwick and Lawrence R. Benson), McLucas was not in favor of MOL and did not fight its cancellation. In the mid-1990s, in response to a question, McLucas remarked that his problem with MOL was that “It was always one year and one billion dollars from being ready.”

The original total cost was projected to be $1.653 billion. But by December 1967 the total program cost had risen to $2.807 billion.

In the past couple of weeks, the National Reconnaissance Office declassified a large number of MOL documents, including details on its once highly-classified DORIAN optical system. One of the documents is an undated “program chronology” that was clearly drafted in early 1968. The chronology contains not only the cost of the MOL program at various times of its life, but also the schedule. Equally fascinating is an indication of the program elements at various times. MOL started out as a plan for six manned flights of the Gemini spacecraft with the MOL laboratory and its DORIAN optical system, but in only two and a half years an unmanned version of the spacecraft was added to the program and the number of manned flights was reduced to only three. The manned part of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was eroding away over the lifetime of the program.

According to the chronology, by June 28, 1965, before the program was officially approved by President Johnson, the plan was to launch one unmanned flight and six manned missions, with first flight planned for late 1968 and the last flight by early 1970. Total cost was projected to be $1.653 billion. When Johnson approved the project in August of that year, one of those manned missions had been eliminated and the program cost reduced to $1.5 billion. But by December 1967 the total program cost had risen to $2.807 billion, the first qualification flight had slipped to December 1970 and the first manned flight to August 1971.

Two unmanned qualification flights of the laboratory module were added to the schedule in early 1966. These were separate from the November 1966 test flight of a Gemini spacecraft with a hatch cut in its heatshield that the program office did not count as part of their program plan.

According to the program chronology, this was the MOL/DORIAN program between mid-1965 and December 1967:

Program Total Cost Schedule
28 June 1965 $1.653 billion
1 unmanned First flight late 1968
6 manned Last flight early 1970
24 August 1965 $1.500 billion
1 unmanned First manned flight
5 manned late 1968
25 August 1965
(LBJ’s announcement)
$1.500 billion
1 unmanned Unmanned flight 1968
5 manned First manned flight late 1968
23 May 1966 $1.750 billion
2 qualification First qual flight April 1969
3 manned First manned flight Dec. 1969
2 unmanned Compatibility model camera
September 1966 $1.749 billion
2 qualification First qual flight April 1969
3 manned First manned flight Dec. 1969
2 unmanned
December 1966 $1.970 billion
2 qualification First qual flight April 1969
3 manned First manned flight Dec. 1969
2 unmanned
June 1967 $2.350 billion
2 qualification First qual flight April 1970
3 manned First manned flight Dec. 1970
2 unmanned
Oct/Nov 1967 $2.939 billion
2 qualification First qual flight Jan. 1971
3 manned First manned flight Oct. 1971
2 unmanned
December 1967 $2.807 billion
2 qualification First qual flight Dec. 1970
3 manned First manned flight Aug. 1971
2 unmanned

A big shift in the program’s goals had occurred in the first part of 1966 when the program office added a requirement to operate in an unmanned mode at the recommendation of a group of prestigious scientists. This entailed adding a different front end with reentry capsules that would take the place of the pressurized module and the Gemini spacecraft. It also required that the spacecraft be designed to operate on its own. That added significant complexity to the overall system design and to the program, which now had to manage not only the systems to support astronauts in space, but also all the robotic systems as well. The requirement for operating in unmanned or “automatic” mode remained, but it also changed over time. By late 1967 the plan was to launch only three manned missions out of a total of seven.

By the fall of 1967, it was clear to the program managers that the program was spending money far above its appropriated rate and they would either have to get more money, or readjust their schedule and goals.

Abrahamson learned an important lesson that MOL should have followed—it is better to launch something, even a tin can, than to sit on the ground.

At a recent talk at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, former MOL astronaut Lt. Gen. (ret.) James Abrahamson remarked that in early 1968 the deputy director of the MOL program, Major General J.S. Bleymaier, asked the MOL astronauts for their advice about the program’s goals. Presumably the program was in political and budgetary trouble at this time, which is why the program office developed the chronology that listed the changing program goals, increasing cost, and slipping schedule. Abrahamson said that the astronauts told Bleymaier to promise that MOL would be fully operational on its very first flight. Presumably this meant eliminating the two qualification flights.

Abrahamson said that this turned out to be a mistake, because it caused the schedule to slip by nearly a year—with first launch no longer the December 1970 unmanned spacecraft, but now the August 1971 first manned flight. The following year they slipped again, Abrahamson said. He explained that while serving as deputy administrator of NASA in the early 1980s he learned an important lesson that MOL should have followed—it is better to launch something, even a tin can, than to sit on the ground. MOL was sitting on the ground and, with the first launch constantly slipping, its credibility was diminishing.

Throughout most of 1968 the program was aiming for the August 1971 date. But very late in the year it became clear that Congress would not fully fund the defense budget and MOL/DORIAN funding took a hit. The first manned flight slipped to December 1971. By March 1969, the flight schedule was reduced from seven to six launches, but returned to the earlier plan for four manned missions and two unmanned missions, with no qualification flights. The program had a contract for four Gemini B spacecraft. The first manned launch slipped to approximately mid-1972. The total program cost had risen to $2.925 billion. Soon after the reshuffling there was a series of reevaluations and a new total cost estimate of $3.1 billion, over twice the amount that LBJ had committed to in summer 1965.

Now that the nature of MOL/DORIAN’s cost and schedule problems is becoming known, another major question remains: what was the program’s legacy?

These schedule slips and cost increases were not happening in isolation. By early 1969 MOL and its DORIAN optical system were competing against another large and expensive reconnaissance satellite program known as HEXAGON. The two systems were not analogous—DORIAN would provide high-resolution images of tiny areas on the Earth whereas the robotic HEXAGON would photograph huge swaths of territory at lower resolution. MOL/DORIAN was primarily sponsored by the Air Force component of the National Reconnaissance Office whereas HEXAGON was a CIA-led system. Both spacecraft would use Titan III rockets, and both cost a lot of money at a time that the Department of Defense was spending heavily on the Vietnam War. In spring 1969, Richard Nixon canceled HEXAGON. But after an appeal by Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, who argued that HEXAGON was far more important to national security than MOL/DORIAN, Nixon reversed his decision and canceled MOL instead.

According to McLucas’ biography, by the time the program was canceled the cost had become untenable. “Aware of the rapidly improving capabilities of unmanned systems at the NRO, I was unconvinced that the MOL would be worth the cost,” McLucas wrote. “Although there was little tangible to show for the $1.4 billion spent on the MOL, some of its R&D would later help NASA in developing the three-man Skylab space station and the STS. Canceling the MOL saved at least $1.5 billion over the next three years, and the NRO received some of these funds to complete various subsystems and fold them into unmanned satellites.”

Now that the nature of MOL/DORIAN’s cost and schedule problems is becoming known, another major question remains: what was the program’s legacy? Some of that legacy was the people such as the MOL astronauts who went on to other programs. Some of that legacy—classified technologies that were incorporated into other systems—remains secret. And some of that legacy was the money freed up to go into other National Reconnaissance Office programs. MOL/DORIAN is finally giving up its secrets, bit by bit.


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